“Rigorous Honesty”

Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average. There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest.

Alcoholics Anonymous, p 58

This paragraph, known well to members of AA, and repeated in every meeting of some traditional AA fellowships, may be the most intellectually dishonest passage in the entire book of Alcoholics Anonymous. It will come as no news to dissenting AA members who are my likely audience, but I think it’s worth contemplating, especially for its implications.

As William Schaberg documents in Writing the Big Book, Bill Wilson habitually altered historical reality both in the book Alcoholics Anonymous and in recounting the development of AA. Bill chose to omit the details of numerous failed attempts to stay sober by many early members, for instance. The stories he himself told of interactions with the Rockefeller Foundation, and between the New York and Akron groups, changed over the years, and frequently diverged a great deal from what documentation can support. There are wide variations even in his accounts of who was involved in forming the groups, and how they actually worked together to gain and retain sobriety.

Whether Bill was “constitutionally incapable” of being honest is not for us to say, but Schaberg offers several explanations for Bill’s alternative histories. They could be the result of Bill’s poor memory. Perhaps they are due to Bill’s excessive desire and ability to tell a good story. They might express Bill’s aim to give the best possible sales pitch for the book and the idea of AA.

Regardless of how it might be explained, the lack of honesty in the text imposing the demand for rigorous honesty does not sit well for those of us thinking critically. I suspect that, like me, many others have been told not to think critically, or at all, but to simply do “the program,” which includes “rigorous honesty” – whether or not the co-founder himself practiced it. It may be that I am too suspicious, or too quick to judge what appears to be authoritarian Diktat. After all, it may be objected, what I have recounted are mere peccadilloes: everyone tells stories, and we know that memory is never letter-perfect recollection of the past, but always a creation in the present. I should give the guy a break.

I’m hip. In fact, I give Bill W. a pass on all his stories, as far as they go as stories. What I will not let pass is the specious claim that begins this paragraph, and is touted by many as the bedrock claim for the legitimacy and efficacy of the entire “program.”

It was obvious to me from first hearing it that the first sentence commits two fatal fallacies, both of which are rarely made in innocence. These fallacies are sometimes called confirmation bias and petitio principii.

The confirmation bias is expressed in the phrase “Rarely have we seen a person fail…” If Wilson or anyone else in the early days had conducted anything approaching empirical research on the effectiveness of AA, we would know much more about the many alcoholics who came to their meetings and failed: how many they were, what their circumstances were, perhaps even why they did not stay sober. We know from actual research on addiction that most addicts fail to stay sober, no matter what program of sobriety and recovery they undertake. To me, about the only way this claim is comprehensible is if the author of it didn’t look at those who failed.

Of course, there is another way the claim could be comprehensible, and that is if it commits petitio principii – also called a “circular argument.” This is an argument that assumes what it claims to demonstrate. What evidence is given, in this paragraph, to support the claim made here? On what basis are we supposed to believe that it is rare that someone who follows “the program” fails to stay sober? It boils down to this: those who failed to stay sober were incapable of being honest and thus of “following [the] path” of the other early AA members. How do we know that? Because if they had followed the path, they would have stayed sober.

(That’s some catch, that catch-22.)

Nothing I’ve written here is meant to imply that AA has not and does not help people stay sober. It helps me stay sober. I am not entirely sure how it does, but I believe it has to do with having people I can talk to who understand what I have experienced and what I go through now. It makes sense to me that if I am honest about my experience, I can reveal more about what I have really gone through and what I go through now. It makes sense that if I reveal more, I can gain more of a feeling of unburdening myself, and possibly gain a closer connection to others who share similar experiences. It makes sense that having those closer connections gives me both people I can rely on and call on for help, and feelings of acceptance, inclusion and care that improve my well-being. It makes sense that an improved well-being makes it less likely that I will return to addictive drinking.

I don’t recall that being explained in the book of Alcoholics Anonymous. Instead, as in the paragraph in question here, I read fallacies and fables. However the existence of those might be explained by Bill Wilson’s behavior, they are, for me, in no way an accurate or honest explanation of how to stay sober. I could hazard a guess that the mundane reality of building up feelings of well-being through forming community and connection does not make a particularly compelling story, and would not sell a specific “program” for recovery.

2 thoughts on ““Rigorous Honesty”

  1. Whether true or not (I think not), I have always found this sentence particularly alienating: “Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves.” How is this in any way welcoming to a newcomer who has repeatedly tried and failed to stay sober? Before finding my own sobriety I wondered if it were even possible for me to stop drinking. I enjoy reading the steps or the promises, but always quietly decline to read this.


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